By Bijan Rouhani & Fatema Soudavar Farmanfarmaian, London, January 2014
On January 18, 2014, the first major symposium on the environmental predicament facing Iran was held under the sponsorships of Iran Heritage Foundation, the Persian Wildlife Foundation, the Soudavar Memorial Foundation, the London Middle East Institute at SOAS, the International Institute for Environment and Development, IB Tauris Publishers and the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation. A second day of workshops with the participation of experts from both inside and outside Iran was held on on January 19 to suggest remedial measures. To highlight the importance and urgency of such a conference, this article reviews the greatest areas of concern in need of immediate action.
The surge in population in the last four decades and the unpremeditated urge for rapid development, compounded by drought and sanctions, are responsible for a serious deterioration in Iran’s fragile environment. Awareness of the precarious situation is beginning to sink in with attention focusing especially on the vital interrelated problem areas discussed below.
It is now common for schools, universities and even state organizations and banks to close down for days during the autumn and winter months, when air pollution peaks. The closures are intended are intended as an emergency albeit temporary measure to reduce toxic emissions and reduce their effect on citizens’ health. This winter hazardous conditions have been occurring with unprecedented and alarming regularity not only in Tehran, but likewise in all the other big cities - Ahvaz, Mashhad, Isfahan, and Tabriz.
A joint research carried out by the Sharif University of Technology and the Air Quality Control Organization shows that 90% of Tehran’s air pollution is produced by traffic and the remaining 10% by stationary sources including residential dwellings, power plants, and industrial complexes such as the Tehran refinery. Its topography intensifies Tehran’s problem, located as it is in a semi-enclosed basin where pollutants butt against the barrier of the high Alborz mountain range to the north. In winter this is aggravated by the notorious phenomenon known as ‘temperature inversion’ which, by preventing cold air from rising, does not allow pollutants to disperse. Information released by Tehran’s Air Quality Control Organization suggests that the number of days considered hazardous to health has increased substantially in the capital in the last eleven years, with more than146 unhealthy days reported last year. No reliable figure is available for deaths related to poor air quality countrywide, but a former deputy health minister has given a figure of 4460 deaths caused by air pollution in the first nine months of last year in Tehran alone.
The World Health Organization ranks Ahvaz, the capital of the southwestern province of Khuzestan, as the most polluted city in the world. A member of the Iranian Parliament recently reported that only in the last month more than 50,000 inhabitants of the province were referred to hospitals because of pollution-related respiratory problems. In mid-November, acid rain in Ahvaz and the nearby smaller town of Omidiyeh, resulted in a rush of thousands of people to hospitals and emergency wards. Ahvaz University blamed it on toxic airborne particles washing down with rain. Despite an emergency meeting of the country’s High Council of the Environment summoned on December 4 by President Rouhani to implement the most appropriate solutions, the problem has continued unabated, reaching even more alarming levels with no short-term end in sight. For the longer term, a plan to transfer the capital to another city is under review, but the prospective plan, rather than solve the underlying causes, will only displace them.
In Ahvaz and other western and southwestern cities, in addition to emissions from traffic and stationary sources, suffocating dust storms, otherwise known as Middle Eastern Dust (MED), have become a daily problem, all too frequently resulting in the closing of schools. There are different hypotheses for the increased levels of dust, but it is generally assumed that most of it blows in from land masses denuded of their protective vegetation in neighboring countries - Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, the Arabian Peninsula - as well as within Iran.
Numerous indicators point to a serious water crisis evolving throughout the region including Iran. A research by NASA, published in February 2013, shows that large parts of the mostly arid or semi-arid Western Asian region have been losing freshwater reserves at a much faster pace in the past decade. The analysis of NASA’s satellite images attributes about 60% of the loss to pumping water from underground aquifers. Although a long period of drought due to climate change may be partly responsible, it is widely held that the impact could have been considerably reduced by a better management of water resources. Excessive dam-building, too many deep wells dug for irrigation at ever greater depth, diversion of rivers, unnecessary wastage, uncontrolled evaporation and dumping of raw and toxic sewage are some of the major factors causing a rapid depletion of water resources above and below ground. Over 110,000 illegal deep wells are estimated to be in operation throughout the country, contributing substantially to the lowering of the level and volume of aquifers which have historically supplied much of the water for human, animal and plant use in Iran.
Iran’s Ministry of Energy calculates that 92.4% of accessible fresh water is used for agricultural activities, far above the world average of 69-70%. The domestic sector uses 6.5 % and industry only 1.5 % of accessible freshwater. Some experts fear that the country may have overused its available water resources to the extent that parts of the Iranian plateau may become uninhabitable within thirty years. Currently, Iran is using 70% of its total renewable freshwater, far above the upper limit of 40% recommended according to international norms. This means that only 30 % of the total renewable freshwater resources remains unexploited for basic environmental needs. At this unsustainable rate, it will not take long for the remainder to dry up. This became evident when the largest saltwater lake in the world, Lake Urmia in the northwestern province of Azarbaijan, began to dry up so rapidly that only 20% of its former water volume remains, leaving sculpture-like salt columns exposed. The exposed salt, in turn, could spread to surrounding lands and render them unproductive, not to mention the effect of salt-bearing winds on human health. Less spectacular but equally damaging is the gradual drying up of Iran’s wetlands, even along the wet Caspian coast.
The main source of Iran’s water resources is precipitation, primarily snowmelt which feeds into underground aquifers. The country’s average annual precipitation of an estimated 250 mm varies regionally from 50 mm in parts of the central water basin to more than 1600 mm in the coastal areas of the Caspian Sea. Thus, by comparison with the average world annual precipitation of over 830 mm, Iran is classified among the world’s semi-arid and arid countries. Half a century ago, in the early 1960s, available fresh water per capita in Iran amounted to half of the world average. This ratio has shrunk to one third in about 15 years, and according to the Ministry of Energy per capita availability of freshwater in Iran will further diminish to a quarter of the world average in the next 20 years.
Excessive construction of dams, initially viewed as a panacea, far from solving the problem, has aggravated it by depriving downriver water sources and wetlands from being replenished at normal rates. According to the new Minister of Energy, the total capacity of dams in Iran is 68 billion cubic metres, in disregard of the fact that the country’s rivers dispose of no more than 46 billion cubic metres of water.
The situation has now become so dire as to prompt citizen action. In some of the cities of the province of Khuzestan, drinking water is becoming increasingly scarce, and the available water is so polluted as to be even unfit for washing and agriculture. Water problems have led to conflicts between neighboring cities and provinces. Last year, angry farmers in Isfahan attacked and destroyed a pipeline built to carry water from the city’s Zayandeh Rud River to the neighboring desert city of Yazd. This year, people in Khuzestan have been protesting against the transfer of the once plentiful water of Iran’s only navigable river, the Karun, to the central provinces. The shrinking flow of the Karun will in turn increase the salinity of its water, making it less fit for use..
Deforestation and Desertification
The average annual rate of soil erosion in Iran is more than 15 tons per hectare, five times higher than the accepted norm in other parts of the world. It has now reached a critical point. According to the Soil Science Society of Iran (SSSI), the country has the highest rate of soil erosion among developing countries. The current director of SSSI estimates economic loss due to soil erosion at about 14% of Iran’s gross national income.
Hundreds of years are needed for the natural formation of one inch of fertile soil. The erosion process, caused by natural factors as well as by human activities, affects not only the quantity but also the quality of soil. Its acceleration leads to desertification, ecosystem collapse, and diminished agricultural production. Besides natural factors such as drought and global warming, human activities, such as deforestation and mismanagement of water resources have intensified the rate of erosion, raising the prospect of greater desertification, even in areas once known for their fertile productive soil.
According to some archeologists, Iran’s forest cover two millennia ago may have been as high as 80 million hectares. By the twentieth century it was no more than 18 million hectares, further reduced to14 million or less in the last five decades. The high rate of deforestation, due to clearing for agriculture, road-building, mining, industry and housing, including secondary holiday homes, is all the more serious that Iran’s forest cover was, at its best, barely adequate to alleviate soil erosion, preserve humidity for periods of drought, compensate for pollution and ensure the survival of animal and vegetal biodiversity. In 2012, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) warned that the pace of deforestation in Iran is higher than anywhere else in the world and that as a result Iran, one of 70 countries with sparse tree cover, is rapidly losing what little remains of its forestlands. According to the former director of Iran’s Department of Environment, the rate of destruction of forestland amounts to 100,000 hectares per year. Clearly the situation calls for urgent action.
Iran's population has increased by a factor of 8 in the last 80 years from about 10 million in 1920 to more than 75 million in 2012, making it the 17th most populated country in the world on semi-arid imperiled land. According to UN data Iran will be among the ten most populated regions in the world by 2050. However, this last projection does not seem to factor in the abrupt reduction of the fertility rate which has diminished to below replacement level in recent years Even though that will incur problems of its own in social terms, it will inevitably reduce the unsustainable pressure on natural resources.
The good news is that not only international organizations, but also government institutions in Iran have become aware of the gravity of the country’s environmental predicament. Obviously any reparative measures will not be painless, but the disaster accruing from an unproductive environment will be much more painful. Clearly the present trend cannot be sustained without imperiling survival across the length and breadth of the Iranian plateau. Whether urgent measures will be taken in good time to reverse at least part of the damage remains to be seen. Positive change depends on internal factors, such as improved management, public education and planning with foresight and consideration for natural limits, but also on external factors such as climate change and international sanctions which have prohibited exchanges between scientists and denied the importation of environment-friendly equipment to Iran. The earth’s natural environment does not recognize political frontiers. We are all in this together and together must prevent impending disaster.
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